Australia needs a real debate on a national security strategy

In a series of contributions to The Strategist over the past few months, Senator Jim Molan has been making the case for Australia to develop a national security strategy. It’s a notion that has merit. As Molan notes, ‘there’s only limited consensus on the main security challenges we will face in the years to come’. This a highly contested policy area and even the process of debating the purpose, horizon and value of such a document would be an important exercise.

Molan has set out some boundary markers for the scope of a national security strategy. The analysis, he argues, ‘must go beyond purely military concerns to include social and economic factors that could affect Australia’s ability to fight a future war’. Australia needs ‘a brutally realistic national security policy’ that tests ‘the coherence between policy, national strategy, concepts for national resilience, security and defence, and the steps needed in preparing a nation for war’.

Molan advocates ‘a whole-of-nation obligation led by the government’ that encompasses ‘infrastructure, spare parts, liquid fuel, industrial base, contingency plans, political leadership, national resolve and support from the nation’. His national security strategy is a blueprint for major, if not total, war.

In this Molan is largely right. A war between China and the US in East Asia would be utterly unlike the recent military actions in which Australia has been involved. It wouldn’t be conducted in distant locations like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or North Africa against an adversary that lacks the capacity to launch significant conventional military force at a distance. And it wouldn’t be in a part of the globe where strategic objectives with some prospect of partial achievement were shared by allies and the international community alike.

There’s no recent experience of major conflict between great powers on which current leaders can draw. Studying past major wars won’t reveal anything directly useful about the next war—except, hopefully, to instil in decision-makers caution and prudence, and deflate any hubris about the prospects of achieving national strategic objectives through military action.

Wars break familiar things and make strange, unexpected things out of the debris. Major wars often push societies and international arrangements in new and unpredictable directions. It must be front of mind for decision-makers contemplating military action that ‘great wars are transformative events; they destroy not only lives and property, but also established world orders—norms, institutions, ideas, perceptions—in short, the old ways of thought and practice’.

To go into a major war with the intention of preserving something, be it values, alliances or prevailing institutions, is a vain hope. That truth is borne out by even a cursory examination of the legacies of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the Napoleonic wars (1803–1815), the American Civil War (1861–1865), World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945).

Therefore, an important question before we get to Molan’s need to clarify ‘a consistent set of assumptions about how to fight, where to fight, who can fight, or how long we can fight for’ is, why should Australia fight? Governments need to develop a view on the possible course or courses that a major great-power conflict might take and balance the risks and benefits inherent in the short- and long-term postwar situations Australia might face.

That is not to argue for appeasement or pacifism. There will be many strategic situations in which Australia would be justified in employing military force in pursuit of its values and the security and welfare interests of its citizens. As in the past, occasions will arise when the cause demands action.  For these purposes, Australia needs to maintain effective military forces capable of realising achievable objectives and, to the extent practicable, protecting the lives of service personnel on operations. But major war is such a momentous step that it cannot be contemplated without mature caution.

The recent differences of view expressed on the issue of a conflict over Taiwan add greater weight to Molan’s plea for an open and robust debate over Australia’s national security policy. Existential issues are often at stake in major great-power conflicts, as history shows, but always at risk are an enormous cost in civilian lives, the destruction of ways of life and prosperity, and prolonged misery and suffering for millions of people.

The decision to prepare for a major great-power war will draw heavily on national resources, aside from enhancing the military, to build the necessary national resilience. And that requires a brutally realistic national debate.